Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Dez Reviews Neil Young's 'A Letter Home,' 2014

God bless Neil Young. Over the last several years, he has been at the vanguard of a movement to improve sonic purity, a knight in shining armor fighting for our right to hear music the way it should be heard. To vanquish the ear bud drones and bring back hi-fi. He has been pushing the new Pono System, a hi-fi digital service that promises to return sound to the fuller days before the MP3 era. You might think that Neil would release a record that would exemplify the great new sound of the future (past). Or at least sound great on the Pono. But he lives in Neilworld, so he decided to step inside a 1947 Voice-O-Graph booth with an acoustic guitar and harmonica and dash off a record of covers. It is the most lo-fi record you will ever hear, whether you have it on a crappy MP3 or 80 gram vinyl. The Voice-O-Graph was a mainstay at carnivals and boardwalks in the ’40s, where any average Joe Schmo could put a few pennies into what looks like a phone booth and make his own scratchy 78rpm record. Often people would simply record a spoken message, a sort of audio letter to a loved one who lived far away (hence the title of the record).

Neil came across this restored Voice-O-Graph when visiting Jack White’s Third Man studio. He practiced a batch of folk/country covers for about three months, and then went in and cut this record on the Voice-O-Graph in single takes (there is really no other option than to do single takes). White co-produces with Neil and plays and sings back-up on a couple of tracks.

It sounds like a poorly recorded bootleg, with the crackle and hiss of an old 78rpm record. Not only that, but sometimes the speed gets off and sounds kinda warbly, like an old cassette tape where the tape got eaten up and twisted in your boombox. Or like your old LP is warped from accidently leaving it in the backseat of your car on a summer day in Texas. There is really not much “mixing” to speak of. One volume. Look at the cover and you get the idea. It looks and sounds like Neil recorded his new record inside a phone booth. (It is funny to picture the two songs where White sings with Young, as they would both have to try and squeeze into the booth and sing into the single microphone).

And that is all part of the greatness of the record. He wants to evoke a bygone era that befits these songs, a time capsule of sorts.

It is a concept record. The opening track is, in fact, a spoken message to his deceased mother. It is not as depressing as it sounds, though. Neil is characteristically, wonderfully weird, spending over half of the track telling his mother how nowadays people get pissed off at weather men for getting the forecast wrong, making several references, if I have it right, to Al Roker. Oh, and he scolds her (twice) that she “really should talk to Daddy,” since afterall they are in the same place now. (His parents divorced when he was young). He also asks her to “say hi to Ben for me,” referencing longtime sideman Ben Keith.

The song choices are...curious. Some really work. Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death” goes hand in hand with Neil's own “Needle and the Damage Done” or all of Tonight’s the Night. In this lo-fi, crackling setting, it is absolutely haunting. And he reveals with his version of the song that he stole the melody for his own “Ambulance Blues” (1974) from Jansch. Bob Dylan’s much covered “Girl From the North Country” sounds good done by anyone because it is such a brilliant song (my personal favorite is a live Pete Townshend track), but Neil does it special justice, I think, with his roughshod reading. He drains all tenderness from it and make it wonderfully bitter. Phil Ochs’ “Changes” and Neil’s duet with White on The Everly Brothers’ “I Wonder If I Care As Much” also work very well. I think the best track is Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind,” a fantastic song that was hampered somewhat by a certain cheesiness in the hands of Lightfoot. Neil brings the raw emotions of the song to the forefront and kills it.

His two Willie Nelson choices are a split. “Crazy” is nice and sounds fantastic in this vintage setting. The ramshackle “On the Road Again” (again, a duet with Jack White) is so ramshackle that the train sounds like it falls off the rails. The oddest and most critically polarizing choice is Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown.” With a catalogue as rich as Springsteen’s, there are many intriguing options for Neil to tackle. But this? Probably the worst tune from Born in the USA. Imagine Neil grabbing one of the darker Nebraska or Ghost of Tom Joad tunes and transporting it back in time through the Voice-O-Graph, that would have been fantastic. But his rendition of “My Hometown” is terrible. Almost unlistenable.

Taken as a whole, we have another strange detour and transmission from Weird Uncle Neil. The funny thing, though, is that in the last several decades, these odd, seemingly whimsical throwaways have been Neil’s best work. His ode to his electric car Fork in the Road, the jarring Le Noise project with Daniel Lanois, the garage Crazy Horse journey through the far past Americana…and now A Letter Home can join that wonderfully weird company. If other grizzled veterans of the rock and roll wars were as strange, as whimsical, as vital as Neil Young still is, the world would be a more interesting place.

***1/2 out of *****

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Dez Record Guides: The Cure

I think that The Cure is one of the most significant bands to emerge since the late 70's. Never critical darlings, in part because they helped pioneer a generally lambasted genre, they nonetheless gathered a fiercely loyal core following, and at times have gained massive commercial success on the strength of their more pop-oriented hits. There really are two Cures. One are the mopey goth kings and the other is a jubilant pop band. As one of their album titles suggests, Wild Mood Swings. More than just mood swings, their music is bipolar.

When speaking of The Cure, of course, you are speaking primarily of Robert Smith, frontman, singer, lyric writer, guitarist, avatar. Others have spent substantial time as band members and made crucial contributions (Simon Gallup, Porl Thompson, Lol Tolhurst, Roger O'Donnell, etc.) and the music composition for their songs is usually credited to the whole band while lyrics are credited to Smith. But Robert Smith is the only member who has been there from the beginning and he is the face of The Cure. Not only that, he is really the face, the representative, the caricature of an entire subspecies of teenager. The goth teen, often morose-looking but usually not really, sitting in the back of class, wearing black, pale because they only come out at night, heavy black eyeliner (whether male or female), also often very intelligent. Smith is good natured about his status as goth icon, going so far as to voice himself on 'South Park.'

ABOVE: Robert Smith on 'South Park'

Funny personal story. I attended a Cure show in 1992 on the Wish tour. One of my friends, who shall remain nameless, convinced the other three of us going to the show that we will not fit in to the goth convention that would be a Cure concert unless we dressed the part. So we donned the black eyeliner, wore all black and frizzed our hair. Of course when we show up to the non-goth Woodlands Pavilion outside of Houston, 95% of the crowd looks completely normal. And naturally we run into people we know.

Caricatures aside, the music stands on its own merits. Depending on which record you are talking about, it can be waves dark yet comforting, sweet depression, or sharp pop music of the highest order. Sometimes both are on the same record.

Boys Don’t Cry (1980) ****
Note: I am reviewing the American version of the debut, which some technically categorize as a compilation. In Britain it was released as Three Imaginary Boys with a different tracklist. As usual, the American version includes singles that in Britain were released as singles only. The debut doesn’t really sound like anything else in their discography, I think in part because Robert Smith probably did not have as much production/creative control as he would subsequently have. Smith has said that he is not a fan of the record. All of that aside, BDC is a fantastic piece of minimalist, post-punk rock. The thin production that Smith complains about is a strength, actually. The thin guitar and simple rhythms give space to these quite catchy, short songs. They are equally pop (Smith, despite even when he does not want to, cannot help but write catchy melodies) and experimental. A sprightly beginning before Smith and co. would head down the darker paths of the next three records (and help invent goth along the way).

Seventeen Seconds (1980) ****
Faith (1981) ****
Pornography (1982) ****

The gloom and doom trilogy are landmark goth rock records. I guess it depends on how much you enjoy goth. Even though The Cure's overall discography is quite diverse and full of joyous pop music, their reputation with their core audience rests here, and everything that follows either continues in this vein or blatantly rejects it. I find SS to be the most enjoyable, it still has some remnants of the spryness of the debut ("A Forest" and "Play For a Day"), but also moves into the darker territory as well. It has a nice balance. Faith and Pornography are unrelenting in their despair, some may say to the point of caricature. The gray cover of Faith perfectly captures the music within, an overcast melancholy as one song flows into the next. The songs themselves are often hard to distinguish from each other, but I think that is part of the point. It is a mood piece intended to be taken as a whole. It is indeed a gray record, but also beautiful in some ways, like how an overcast gray day is not altogether unpleasant. Pornography, though, has very little beauty to it. It is more aggressive and the bleakest of all, and it splits opinions. For many Cure faithful it is their greatest achievement. The first line you hear on the record is "It doesn't matter if we all die..." and it goes downhill from there. Honestly, I more admire Pornography than love it, but its influence is undeniable.

Japanese Whispters (compilation) (1983) **
The Top (1984) **
Concert: The Cure Live (live) (1984) ***

After the landmark gloom and doom trilogy helped to pioneer goth (both as a sound and teenage subculture) Smith was (surprise) depressed and wanting to shift directions. Where to go after Pornography? The group fell apart around him, so these two records are transitional in every respect. As with many of the latterday Cure releases, there are some fantastic singles surrounded by filler. The filler here is weaker than usual, but the singles are phenomenal. "Let's Go To Bed", "The Walk", "The Love Cats" and especially "The Caterpillar" are 80's pop at its most catchy and innovative. NOTE: Technically JW was a compilation because it collected 1983's singles and b-sides, but it works as a full, new record. Concert is an energetic live show that while nothing here is revelatory, features a tougher Cure than in the studio. "Killing an Arab" is taken at punk speed and energy, a far cry from the BDC version.

The Head on the Door (1985) ****
One of the more consistently great Cure records, it sets the blueprint for most of the records to follow. A handful of truly great singles (in this case, "In Between Days, " with classic depressing Smith lyrics joined with buoyant pop music, and "Close to Me") and moodier album tracks. THOTD marks a dividing line between the goth kings and a more pop, radio friendly direction. And is "Push" their greatest non-hit? Often lost in the mix, but it is one of their best records.

Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987) ***1/2
In a certain respect, KMKMKM suffers from the malady of most double albums. With smart editing, you could have a more cohesive, stronger single. But the space does allow for an interesting schizophrenic effect, where on one hand you have a handful of fantastic pop singles ("Catch", "How Beautiful You Are", "Why Can't I Be You", "Hot Hot Hot" and what is definitely one of the great 80's songs, "Just Like Heaven"). But then you have more expansive, languid, experimental tracks that predict the masterpiece to come. Songs that vamp instrumentally for 2 or 3 minutes before Smith even decides to sing. And I really dig "Like Cockatoos" for some reason.

Disintegration (1989) *****
Entreat (live) (1991) ****

Their undisputed masterpiece and most enduring work, Disintegration combines the best of what they had done before and takes it to a new level. Filled with slow to midtempo numbers, it creates a melancholy yet seductive mood like few records do. The singles are amongst their most affecting (“Lovesong,” “Pictures of You” and the none-more-Cure “Lullaby”: "don't struggle like that, I will only want you more...the spiderman is having you for dinner tonight"...oddly romantic or sung from the perspective of a serial killer?), while the more expansive numbers create a gorgeous soundscape. "Prayers For Rain," "Same Deep Water As You" and the title track are epic, expansive, beautiful, depressing, essential stuff. Entreat is a live version of Disintegration that stays fairly close to the original arrangements, but has enough variation to where fans will find it interesting.

ABOVE: Gotta give him credit for staying true to his roots. Even today as a much older and more bloated man, Smith still goes out there in full goth garb and make-up.

Wish (1992) ***1/2
Paris (live) (1993) **
Show (live) (1993) ****
Wild Mood Swings (1996) ***
Bloodflowers (2000) ***
The Cure (2004) ***
4:13 Dream (2008) ***
Bestival Live 2011 (live) (2011) NR

From here on, their records feature some fantastic singles surrounded by decent to good filler. I give a slight edge to Wish (their biggest seller) and Bloodflowers as they have a more cohesive feel to them. Show is a great latterday live recording from the Wish tour.

The Cure are an interesting case, since they definitely view themselves as an album band and present many of their records as a cohesive piece of work, yet they are also one of the greatest singles bands in rock history. Listening to a good collection of Cure singles is like getting into the ring with a heavyweight champ, and he just hits you with one knockout punch after another. Standing On a Beach: The Singles (1986) ***** is essential, collecting The Cure’s singles from their first decade. If I were to make a list of ten essential 80’s records, this Cure collection would be there. It makes sense to then follow it up with Galore: The Singles (1997) *****, continuing on with the next decade of their career. Greatest Hits (2001) **** is a single disc that attempts to cover everything, and there is simply too much to make one disc anything close to definitive. Stick with Standing on a Beach and Galore. Mixed Up (remixes) (1990) ** is a pretty bad collection of remixes for the dance floor. Smith and co. always had an overflow of material, and the four disc box set Join the Dots: B-sides and Rarities 1978-2001 The Fiction Years (2004) **** proves that they had several records worth of A-level material sitting in the wings or stuffed onto b-sides.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Dez Reviews the Book 'How Could This Happen: Explaining the Holocaust' by Dan McMillan, 2014

Author Dan McMillan claims that his book 'How Could This Happen: Explaining the Holocaust' is the first to directly and solely focus on why the Holocaust occurred. I find that hard to believe, but I do not have direct evidence to the contrary. So much has been written on the Holocaust, much of it factual accountings of the horrors. I have often wondered myself exactly why this happened, the most infamous genocide in history perpetrated by one of the world's most cultured and advanced people, the Germans.

McMillan does about as good of a job as probably possible trying to explain the why. I say as good of a job, because some things do defy explanation. McMillan denies that, but even after reading this generally very good attempt, at the end, I still did ask the fundamental question of "why" and it was not completely answered.

What McMillan does exceptionally well is give a detailed political, cultural, social and economic picture of Germany from the 1880s through 1945. To understand the Holocaust, Hitler and the Nazis, you do indeed have to start in the 1880s.

McMillan tries, somewhat unsuccessfully I'm afraid, to explain "why Germany" vs. other advanced nations of the time, even though many of the same conditions were present in France, Britain, even the U.S. He goes to pains to reach the conclusion that it was a long series of unfortunate circumstances, bad luck and historical developments vs. something to do with the German character itself that would have allowed this to happen, contrary to Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi when he states "they construct shelters and trenches, they repair the damage, they build, they fight, they command, they organize and they kill. What else could they do? They are Germans."

The author correctly points out that Germans are far from alone as perpetrators of genocide throughout history. But the holocaust is a unique genocide. The only one whose sole purpose was to kill every single member of the targeted group. To make them extinct. It was not out of desperation to maintain power and get an opponent out of a region (Rwanda, Turks against Armenians, Bosnia), misguided policies in pursuit of flawed ideologies that supposedly mean well in the end (Cambodia, USSR under Stalin) or largely inadvertent (Spanish conquest of Latin America and smallpox). The Holocaust was perpetrated from a position of strength on a people who posed no actual threat to the ones in power, with the goal of simply making those people nonexistent.

He analyzes in convincing fashion a series of events and conditions that led Germany down this ultimately horrific path. His primary argument relates to democracy's miserable failure in Germany. Germany did not get democracy until 1918, at the end of World War I. Many leaders of the democratic movement in Germany were socialists, and socialism (and worst, communism) were real threats in Germany, especially to the elites and well-educated. The bolshevik revolution in Russia only solidifed those fears that "it could happen here." And it could. For decades in Germany there had been bitter and extreme divisions and rivalries amongst political parties, factions and classes. The socialist and communist movements in Germany were, somewhat wrongly, linked to Jews by most Germans. The Nazi treatment of Jews and slavic peoples in the East is inextricably linked.

In order to overcome these bitter divisions in German society and politics to reach the goal of a stronger Germany, many leaders hoped to unite Germany by creating a strong sense of nationalism. Linked to that was the rabid anti-Semitism all over Europe (and the U.S.) at the time. You create nationalism in part by identifying enemies at home and abroad. Finding enemies abroad was linked to Germany's very aggressive imperialist policies leading into World War I. Germany was late to actually become a nation and late to the Imperialist game. By the time they got in the sweepstakes, most of the good territory had already been grabbed by their rivals. So for Germany, the only way to gain valuable territory and become a world power to was to take territory already possessed by rivals like Britain, France and the U.S. All of this aggression is a big part of the cause of World War I. (The enemy at home were Jews, who were the ultimate outsiders in most European countries at the time). Hitler and the Nazis were simply the most extreme nationalists and anti-Semites among many.

Unique to Germany was this hope for a Great Man. Since Otto von Bismarck, one of the greatest political leaders of the 1800s, Germans had been looking for another Great Man to be their savior. After World War I, Germany was economically in chaos and humiliated by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. It is more than unfortunate that democracy got its chance in Germany under these impossible circumstances. Hitler comes to power largely through democratic means. As I tell my students, Hitler wins elections by promising the German people that there will be no more elections. Hitler fits this Great Man mold. As McMillan states, they were looking for him before Hitler ever arrived. And so key to Hitler's rise was that he had a string of stunning domestic and military successes early on that made him appear to be a deity to the desperate German people. It really was lots of luck and bold gambler's moves by Hitler in the face of an isolationist U.S. and war weary European powers. The Holocaust would not have happened without the unique man that was Adolf Hitler. Unique in the sense of his hatred, rage, unparalleled cruelty and sadism, paranoia, self-delusion combined with a charisma and stunningly good luck from 1933-1941 that brought him to power in Germany.

The brutal experiences of World War I cheapened life to a degree that was unprecedented in human history. Trench warfare with all of its deadly technology became mechanized killing. The most enthusiastic German soldiers during the Great War (such as Hitler) became Nazi killers. Add prevailing racist "scientific" theories like Social Darwinism, eugenics, etc. that were prevalent worldwide at the time, which allowed dehumanizing entire peoples and explaining that genetics made them dangerous, were also crucial to the Holocaust. As Heinrich Himmler coldly put it, "[with the Jews] it is exactly as with delousing...It is a manner of cleanliness...We will soon be completely free of lice." McMillan also makes great use of general psychological theories and studies (Milgram, Zimbardo) to show group think, deference to authority, adaptation and diffusion of responsibility that are common to all humanity. He also points out that in every country in which the Nazis killed Jews they found willing accomplices in those countries.

In the end, McMillan does a fantastic job explaining all that unfolded in Germany for the Holocaust to occur. All of these factors tragically came together. But in the end, I was still left asking why.

***1/2 out of *****

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Accidental Shoplifting

What would you do...

The wife is out of town. You have your four year old and one year old with you. You go to the grocery store with them to pick up a few things. After paying for your groceries and going back out to the car, you get the kids buckled in and notice that under the one year old's car seat that was in the grocery cart are about $15 worth of items that you forgot about and did not pay for. It is almost dinner time and the baby is getting fussy. It is about to rain.

What do you do?

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Dez Record Guides: The Beatles, Pt. 2

SEE the post below for Part 1 of the Beatles Guide.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) *****

What is it about Sgt. Pepper? If you read the reviews of the time (and analysis even today), it was an epochal event in music. I have read reviews from the period that talk about it altering the definition of “music” itself, and that, forget Mozart, music has now moved into its next phase of development. It altered our very culture, supposedly. This from a record with a song inspired by a cornflakes commercial (“Good Morning, Good Morning”), a song about a traveling medicine show rock band (the title track), a tune about getting old and hoping his old lady will still be around to cook for him (“When I’m Sixty-Four”), a song describing a vintage circus poster (“Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”) a song, regardless of John Lennon’s denials, about an Alice in Wonderland-like acid trip (“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”) and songs that were written from just reading whatever headlines happened to be in the papers that day (“She’s Leaving Home,” “A Day in the Life”). Talk about laboring over every single detail. Remember that their debut, Please Please Me, had been recorded in one 12 hour session. They logged over 900 hours of studio time to record Sgt. Pepper, and supposedly every single instrument and voice was treated with some sort of studio effect and trickery. They had stopped performing live anyway, so without the pressure of creating music that could be reproduced onstage, they were free to play in the studio however they wished with no boundaries. The record became the symbol of the new flower power era and summer of love ethos, you were either “with” Sgt. Pepper or you were not a part of the new culture. Perhaps it is revolutionary precisely because finally popular culture (cornflakes, circuses, newspapers) became indistinguishable from high art (what Warhol tried to do, but better?) Not only had the boundaries been removed as to musical possibilities in the studio, but also the boundaries were torn down between pop culture and art. And isn’t that our world today?

Magical Mystery Tour (part compilation) (1967) ****
American release that was really a combo of two EPs. Side one was comprised of tunes from their silly TV special, with Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus” standing out as perhaps the strangest thing he ever recorded as a Beatle. Side two is a convenient collection of their remarkable single/b-side only releases from ’67 (including “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane” and “All You Need Is Love”). As a package, it is probably their most psychedelic record, but it is more of a hodgepodge than a real record.

The Beatles (aka ‘The White Album’) (1968) ****
Usually the knock on double albums is that they lack focus and cohesion, and that you probably could have had a much stronger record by picking the best tracks and making a single album. All of this is true of The White Album, yet all of that is also its real strength. The White Album’s mystique, its uniqueness, comes from the space provided for each of the Beatles to stretch out. It is essentially like four mini-solo albums. They mostly eschew the heavy studio treatments of their most recent work and try to sound like a band again. But this is an illusion. What you hear on The White Album is four (well, really three) artists declaring their independence from each other and doing their own thing, and the results are often fantastic and often uniquely that Beatle. They essentially act as backing musicians on each other’s tracks (if they all four play on a track at all, which is only on about half of them). Ringo quit at one point, McCartney often recorded all of his own tracks, and the others were so disinterested in Harrison’s work that he had to call in buddy Eric Clapton to play guitar on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” just to get them to take the song seriously. The record is full of trifles, yes, but also loose humor and gritty rock and roll that had been missing since their early days. Also, the stereotypes are somewhat challenged. McCartney (Mr. cheesy love song) delivers the craziest and hardest rocking song in their entire repertoire (“Helter Skelter”), while Lennon (who was considered the rocker), delivers the most delicate tune in “Julia.” Not all of this works. Several tracks really are throwaways, and who do you know that ever listens to “Revolution 9” all the way through?

Yellow Submarine (1969) *
The Beatles were not interested in being made into a cartoon, so the soundtrack to 'Yellow Submarine' is by far their weakest release primarily because they had no interest in the project (ironically, it was such a success that they later came to appreciate it). Half of the album is an orchestral score from George Martin, two songs are old tunes that had already been released multiple times, leaving four actual new Beatles songs. And clearly, they were scraping the bottom of the barrel and offering up their leftovers.

NOTE: Technically, Let It Be was released as their last album. But the material was recorded prior to Abbey Road, shelved, and then released after AR. Therefore, many Beatles listeners go by chronology of the sessions, and consider LIB to be the penultimate record and AR as the final one. And since AR is a much better record, it makes for better closure. So I will discuss them in that order.

Let It Be (1969/1970) ***
Hey, we’re falling apart and can hardly stand to be in the same room together, so let’s record an album, film it all and release it as a documentary. Sounds good. McCartney was pushing for a “return to basics” and possibly even live performance, which explains the rawer arrangements of these songs. Honestly, about half of this record is throwaways, but there is still some great material here. The title track and “Get Back” are McCartney classics, and Lennon’s “Across the Universe” is gorgeous. I also like “Two of Us” and the Lennon/McCartney mash-up “I’ve Got a Feeling.” Generally unsatisfied with these sessions, the band shelved the material as the group moved on to work on Abbey Road. Later Lennon and Harrison handed the tapes over to Phil Spector, who produced and added strings and choirs to a few tracks, notoriously infuriating McCartney by “ruining” “The Long and Winding Road.” Macca would finally get what he wanted decades later, releasing Let It Be…Naked, the original tapes stripped of Spector’s meddling, with a different running order and slightly different setlist. McCartney was right, the “naked” “The Long and Winding Road” is much better.

Abbey Road (1969) *****
Considering the state of the band at the time, it is remarkable that their last recording was so great. It is almost as if, after all of the animosity and discord, they decided to set it aside one last time to prove that they could still do it right. That they did. One of the things that becomes clear is that nobody was ready for the Beatles to end more than George Harrison. His two songs he was allowed to add to the album were both hits (“Something,” “Here Comes the Sun”), and his songwriting had reached a point to where Lennon and McCartney’s continued dismissive attitude towards George’s contributions had become intolerable. Most of this record is brilliant, with complex harmony singing, deep bluesy grooves, whimsical fragments, multi-part suites. It is a tour de force and a perfect ending.

Past Masters, vol. 1 (compilation) (1988) ***1/2
Past Masters, vol. 2 (compilation) (1988) *****

Many of The Beatles’ most famous hits were single only releases that did not appear on their British records. Since Capitol Records decided to reissue only the British versions of their records, that meant that many of the biggest hits were not available. This was the solution. The Past Masters volumes serve as the perfect clean-up, including all single only releases, b-sides and alternate single releases of some album tracks. Without these releases you would not have available “From Me To You,” “She Loves You,” “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “This Boy,” “I Feel Fine,” “Day Tripper,” “We Can Work It Out,” “Paperback Writer,” “Lady Madonna,” “Hey Jude,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “The Ballad of John and Yoko”…etc.

As you might imagine, The Beatles have released many compilations over the years. The two most popular ones are informally known as ‘The Red Album’ and ‘The Blue Album.’ For many (including myself) they served as the doorway to Beatles music. Both were released as doubles, and Red covers 1962-66, while Blue is 1967-70. While 1962-66 (1973) **** and 1967-70 (1973) **** are fantastic intros for the neophyte, there is much to quibble with as far as choices made. Beatles 1 (2000) **** was a huge hit, collecting 27 number one hits on one disc. The much anticipated Anthology series was a set of three double albums packed with unreleased tracks, alternate takes, demos, live cuts. Sounds like a music fan’s dream, six albums of unreleased Beatles material! But, the Anthology series proves that they did, indeed, release their best material while they were a band. Anthology 1 (1995) **, Anthology 2 (1996) **, Anthology 3 (1996) *** are for fans only. They have also released some collections of early BBC recordings, but they are fairly negligible.

Solo work:

All four Beatles had substantial solo careers after the group’s demise. I would also say that all four of their solo careers have been disappointments, considering the talent and expectations (well, nobody expected much from Ringo, so his solo career would have to be viewed as a success…in that he had one.) Lennon and McCartney apparently brought out the best in each other, and more importantly, curbed the others’ excesses. The competition also kept the other on top of his game. Nobody benefited more from the break-up than Harrison, who had a backlog of tunes that Lennon/McCartney didn’t make room for.

As for what to get, Lennon’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970) ***** is raw, confessional songwriting. It is bare bones arrangements and startling in its emotional intensity. He was working out demons on record. Imagine (1971) **** is more polished but almost as honest, and a hell of a lot catchier. The rest of his discography is spotty, as he indulged in topical political songs or just coasted, and honestly his inspiration kind of dried up. Lennon Legend: The Very Best of John Lennon (1997) **** puts his solo career in the best light.

McCartney has had the most prolific solo career, but so much of it is disappointing. His band Wings in the 70’s was pretty huge commercially. The best two studio recordings from Macca are Band on the Run (with Wings) (1973) **** and Ram (1971) ***. The rest are spotty and you are best off cherry picking individual songs off the records. Some of his more recent records have been good, but just good. The guy is a consummate musician still. As for compilations, Wingspan: Hits and History (2001) **** does a good job, covering 1970-84.

As I said, George Harrison had the most to gain from the break-up. Proving that Lennon and McCartney had wrongfully dismissed his contributions, his All Things Must Pass (1970) *****, a monumental double record (with a third record of jams), is overflowing with fantastic songs that he needed to get out. It was like opening the dam and letting the flood waters flow, and it is the best solo record from a former Beatle. After that clearing out, though, the rest of his solo discography is much less impressive. Let It Roll: Songs By George Harrison (2009) **** is a fine compilation of his solo work.

Ringo Starr supposedly has some decent records, but I haven’t listened to them. Photograph: The Very Best of Ringo Starr (2007) *** is a nice compilation and I would imagine it is all you need.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Dez Record Guides: The Beatles, Part 1

I had to eventually get around to The Beatles. How do you really rate their discography? Do what the All Music Guide does and just give every one of their core releases (aside from Yellow Submarine) plus the two Past Masters collections five stars each and be done with it? As far as influence goes, there is no discography more significant to popular music since 1960. But I won’t cop out to rating everything of theirs as a masterpiece. I’m going to try and look as objectively as I can at the records. One can differentiate (and hopefully offer some interesting commentary and analysis along the way) between the five star releases and those that perhaps should be downgraded.

What is remarkable about The Beatles’ output is that they released all 12 of their UK records (plus the Magical Mystery Tour American release) and a slew of historic singles all within eight years (1963-70). The pace and groundbreaking quality is unmatched. I probably have connected more with the other British invasion bands (I’m more of a Stones, Kinks and Who fan than Beatles fan), but no matter the extent of your fandom, their accomplishments are singular.

Also, as influential as The Beatles were on, well, everybody, it is interesting to note that they were also quite reactionary to what was going on around them. John Lennon showed a huge shift in songwriting in ’64-’65 that was clearly influenced by Bob Dylan. The folk rock of Rubber Soul was influenced greatly by what The Byrds and Dylan were doing. Paul McCartney is on record as stating that Sgt. Pepper would not have happened had they not been “challenged” by what Brian Wilson did with The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds.

The power shifts in The Beatles are also interesting to watch over the eight years of their recording career. On the first five records, it is clearly Lennon’s band. In that wonderful Middle Period (Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper), it is about evenly split between Lennon and McCartney, with McCartney taking more control by Sgt. Pepper as Lennon started to disengage a bit from the band. On the last records, McCartney is clearly in the drivers seat. Throughout, George Harrison is struggling to find his own voice. He would have been a lead talent with almost any other band, but he had to fight with growing frustration as both Lennon and McCartney continued to view his contributions dismissively. And Ringo Starr was lucky to be there.

Note: I will mainly address what most consider to be the “core” Beatles discography, that being their 12 UK releases, plus the American Magical Mystery Tour double EP and the two Past Masters collections, which include all of their non-LP singles and b-sides. I will briefly comment on various compilations, the Anthology series and solo work in Part 2.

Please Please Me (1963) ***
What is perhaps most impressive about The Beatles’ debut is that, aside from the two singles, the record was recorded in one 12 hour session. Today artists can spend close to a year perfecting their records, but The Beatles went into the studio one off day in the middle of a tour and laid it all down, more or less, live. They were a performing machine at this point, and so this was basically one of their sets that they played every night in clubs. Obviously in a historical sense, it is a seismic cultural artifact. But listening to it just from a musical perspective today, as it is split about evenly between Lennon/McCartney originals and covers, they had not quite found their own footing yet as a recording unit. From the get go the Lennon/McCartney team shows themselves to be special songwriters (“Love Me Do,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” the title track), and occasionally they will catch fire on the covers (like Lennon’s famous vocal shredding single take of “Twist and Shout”), but there is simply too much filler here to make this as great from start to finish as its reputation would suggest.

With the Beatles (1963) ***
Similar story as PPM. Split about evenly between originals and covers, it is comprised of more tunes from their live sets. The grooves are a little deeper here with some more variety, though, and since WTB contains so few of their well known songs, it is actually a fresher listen these days. It doesn't feel played to death, but the filler is still present.

A Hard Day’s Night (1964) *****
From that first CRANG! of George Harrison's 12 string Rickenbacher on the title track, it is clear that they had taken the next step. AHDN is all original compositions, and it is here where they leave their influences behind and start influencing everyone else. You've got the obvious classics, but this record is full of lesser known gems as well. The close harmonies of "If I Fell" between John and Paul are so sweet and together, making their acrimonious breakup a few years later seem impossible. It is interesting to note that the songwriting disparity here is the biggest of their discography, with Paul only contributing three tunes (albeit they are two hits and one of his best nonhits, "Things We Said Today"). But this record is almost all Lennon. And that opening chord. It is a clarion call announcing that the 60's had truly arrived.

Beatles For Sale (1964) ****
In one sense BFS is a step back. On an impossible schedule of touring and recording that most bands today would find impossible to maintain, this was recorded under pressure and they went back to throwing in some covers to fill space. The weariness of this record really shows, from the downbeat vibe of most of the tunes to the cynical title to the haggard faces of the band on the cover, and is fascinating. The two Lennon openers "No Reply" and "I'm a Loser" reveal a confessional and vulnerable John that we had not heard before (along with "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party"). McCartney's "I'll Follow the Sun" is one of those effortless pop gems that he could do like no other. One of the more forgotten Beatles records, BFS is worth the rediscovery, even with the throwaway covers, for its weariness and more desperate tone.

ABOVE: John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The greatest songwriting team of all time? Definitely in the conversation. You can usually tell who was the primary writer by who is singing the lead, although they would often help each other out in crucial ways on each other's songs. George Martin: "They did love each other very much throughout the time I knew them in the studio. But the tension was there mostly because they never really collaborated. They were never Rodgers and Hart. They were always songwriters who helped each other with little bits and pieces." McCartney: "We were always in competition."

Help! (1965) ****
Closing out their early period, Help! is the soundtrack to their second film (although like with AGDN, only half of the songs appear in the film). Some of this is filler, but enough is great. The urgent title track, Lennon's Dylan attempt "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away, " and McCartney's "I've Just Seen a Face" really stand out. Oh, and a little tune called "Yesterday", the most covered pop song of all time.

Rubber Soul (1965) *****
Wow. Where to begin. So begins the period where absolutely everyone in rock paid attention to what the Beatles were doing, either for inspiration or to rebel against. Imagine the pressure, with everyone listening, and yet they deliver time and again. RS is a folk-rock album, and The Beatles were inspired by and were reacting to the work that Bob Dylan and The Byrds were doing at this time. But the experimentation is dazzling within the folk-rock idiom, with one of the first sitars in rock in "Norwegian Wood," the speeded up piano for harpsichord effect in "In My Life," and McCartney's fuzz tone bass as just a few examples. Along with producer George Martin, the Fab Four were learning how to use the studio itself as an instrument. RS is one of the first records in rock music that is made as an album with a cohesive feel and sound vs. some repackaged singles surrounded by filler. With RS, and especially the next two, The Beatles are more responsible than anyone else for turning the album into an artform in itself. John Lennon's songwriting has progressed too. He is looking at life in more complex ways, such as the ambiguous affair in "Norwegian Wood," the aching nostalgia of "In My Life," the self-doubt of "Nowhere Man" and the downright frightening threat of physical violence to his woman if she dares to step out in "Run For Your Life." Also, a third songwriting threat emerges with George Harrison's first good song, "If I Needed Someone," a sparkling gem that Harrison openly admitted was trying to emulate Gene Clark's songs for The Byrds. RS quite simply changed the rules of the game.

Revolver (1966) *****
As ground breaking as RS was, as Robert Christgau said, Revolver was "twice as good and four times as surprising." Revolver blew the doors off as far as the possibilities in the studio. The effects used (backward guitars, sitars, tape loops, vocal treatments that were invented on the spot and became standard practice, chanting monks...nothing was off limits) broke all kinds of ground. These might be mere gimmicks in lesser hands, but Revolver also contains their best set of songs and it is in contention for being the greatest record of the rock and roll era. Lennon pioneers psychedelia with "I'm Only Sleeping," "She Said She Said" and the astounding "Tomorrow Never Knows." But McCartney is the star here. It is his finest hour and nobody has ever mastered pop music so thoroughly with such breadth as Macca does on Revolver. Baroque pop in "Eleanor Rigby," expert balladry in "Here, There and Everywhere," wistful melancholy in "For No One" and the pure groovy exuberance of "Good Day Sunshine" and "Got To Get You Into My Life." McCartney is a thing of wonder on Revolver, and it seems so effortless. All of that, and there is still room for three Harrison tunes (opener "Taxman" is cynical George at his best) and Lennon/McCartney throw Ringo a bone and let him sing "Yellow Submarine."

Part 2 will pick up with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and finish the discography and wrap things up.